10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots' Victory at Yorktown
10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown

Khalid Elhassan - July 25, 2018

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
‘American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement With Great Britain’, by Benjamin West. Wikimedia

Peace Negotiations in Paris

After the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, the government of Prime Minister Lord North proposed a Conciliation Plan, promising to end all disagreeable acts if the American colonists ended the war. It was too little, and far too late. The colonies rejected the proposal out of hand, as their goal by then had hardened into a quest for full independence.

The fall of Lord North’s government in March of 1782 cleared the path for peace negotiations to end the conflict on the basis of American independence. Accordingly, peace talks began in Paris in April of 1782 between American Peace Commissioners John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay, who were joined late in the proceedings by Henry Laurens. Britain was represented by Richard Oswald and David Hartley.

Things were touch and go for a while, as the negotiations were not merely between the American colonists and Britain: by then, the war had dragged in France, Spain, and the Netherlands, all of whom had their own war objectives. The Spanish primarily wanted Gibraltar back, while the French, by then exhausted and nearly bankrupt, simply wanted out of the war. In September of 1782, the French proposed a package deal acceptable to Spain by offering an alternative to Gibraltar, but disagreeable to the Americans: it would have granted the colonists independence, but confined them east of the Appalachians.

The American negotiators declined, and offered to negotiate directly with Britain instead for a better deal. That was music to British ears, who jumped at the opportunity to fracture the hitherto united front presented by her adversaries, and to split the emerging United States from her European allies. The British also wanted to resume and enhance their economic and trade ties with their former colonies. Accordingly, Britain offered the US all the territory north of Florida and west of the Appalachians up to the Mississippi River, all the way up to the Canadian border.

The colonists’ split from their European allies was disadvantageous to France, Spain, and the Netherlands. It left them in the lurch, forced to pursue their own bilateral deals with Britain with less leverage than if they had negotiated as a united front. Accordingly, each of them negotiated a separate peace treaty with Britain, more favorable to the British than it might have been otherwise. Understandably, America’s European allies felt betrayed, but from an American perspective, looking out for American interests, the deal offered by Britain had simply been too good to pass.

The American Peace Commissioners accepted the British offer, and forwarded the preliminary articles of peace across the Atlantic to their government. On April 11th, 1783, the Continental Congress issued a proclamation “Declaring the Cessation of Arms” against Britain. That was followed on April 15th by congressional approval of the preliminary articles. The final Treaty of Paris was formally ratified by Congress on January 14th, 1784.

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
An 1883 wood print commemorating the centenary of the Union Jack’s replacement with an American flag in Battery Park. Wikimedia

The British Evacuation of Their Main North American Base in New York

Today, few Americans pay any particular attention to November 25th, but there was a time when that date used to be quite a big deal, particularly in New York City. Indeed, for more than a century, no holiday was celebrated with greater gusto by New Yorkers than November 25th, the anniversary of the British evacuation of their city in 1783. It did not fall into abeyance until World War I, when the British became our allies.

New York was widely viewed as one of the most Loyalist towns during the American Revolution, and it served as the headquarters and main base of the British war effort during the conflict. The British stayed put in the city after the 1781 defeat at Yorktown, the fall of Lord North’s government in 1782, and during the ensuing peace negotiations that lasted well into 1783. Finally, in August of 1783, the British commander in New York received orders from London to evacuate the city.

It was a complicated task, as the British shut down their major base in North America. In addition to embarking officials, men, and materiel, the British also evacuated nearly 30,000 Loyalists who preferred to not take their chances with the victorious Patriots. Thousands of Black Loyalists – former slaves who had escaped their masters to join the British – were also evacuated, despite the victors’ demands that they be surrendered to their owners in accordance with the terms of the peace treaty.

Final evacuation was set for noon, November 25th, 1783. George Washington was scheduled to lead the Continental Army into the city on a triumphal procession at that time, ending at Battery Park, in the southern tip of Manhattan. However, that was delayed by a British gesture that combined humor with pettiness: the departing Redcoats nailed a Union Jack atop a flagpole in Battery Park, then greased the pole. Many men tried to climb the pole and tear down the British colors, but were defeated by the grease. Finally, an army veteran named John Van Arsdale, with the help of specially cut wooden cleats, managed to ascend the pole, tear down the British flag, and replace it with Old Glory before the British fleet had sailed out of sight. Once the American flag flew in place of the British, Washington was finally able to ride at the head of his men into New York, in one the city’s greatest victory parades.

In the following century, a main feature of Evacuation Day celebrations was a descendant of Arsdale reenacting the event by shimmying up a flagpole to replace the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes. However, the greased pole was not the final gesture of defiance from the departing British: that occurred when a gunner in a British warship sailing past jeering crowds on Staten Island’s shore fired his cannon at them. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, as the shot fell short. That (literal) parting shot was viewed by many as the final shot of the American Revolutionary War.

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
A Patriot mob tarring and feathering a British Loyalist. Alpha History

Thousands of British Loyalists Were Forced to Leave the Newly Independent United States

At one level, the American Revolution was what it purported to be: locals fighting for their independence from a distant overseas imperial power. At another level, it was also a civil war between the locals who wanted independence and the ones who did not. Conventional wisdom during the American Revolution had it that about a third of the colonists favored the Patriot cause and independence, a third remained loyal to the British crown, and another third were uncommitted and simply wanted to be left alone. Modern scholarship estimates the actual Loyalist figure at around 20%, but whatever it was, it was a considerable percentage of the population.

The uncommitted could jump on the bandwagon of whichever side won, and most of them probably discovered their inner Patriot in a hurry when the rebels won. But for those Loyalists who favored or even fought for the British, the surrender of King George III’s men at Yorktown in 1781 was bad news. Not just because their side lost, but because it meant that they, too, were about to personally lose – and for quite a few of them, they were about to lose in a big way.

That is because the decisions of revolutions are seldom like the decisions of elections, with the losers getting another chance in a few years. The losers in revolutions often lose for good, especially when it comes to violent revolutions that drag on for years of fighting and bloodshed and suffering, like the American Revolution. Even more so in those parts of the country where the fighting had turned into guerrilla warfare, with neighbors forming into pro and anti British militias that raided and terrorized their opponents. The victors, with memories of prolonged suffering and just how much it cost them to secure victory still fresh on their minds, are seldom magnanimous. So it was with the victorious Patriots, who frequently proved anything but magnanimous towards the losing Loyalists.

In small groups or in huge mobs, Patriots and those who felt the need to demonstrate their Patriot chops – particularly those who had remained uncommitted during the war – fell upon known Loyalists. Some Loyalists were dragged out of their homes and beaten. Others were tarred and feathered – a punishment that often left its victims scarred and disfigured for life from the hot tar, while some were so badly burned that they died of their injuries. Some were robbed. Others had their houses and places of business put to the torch. Yet others were unceremoniously kicked out of their homes and chased out of their community at gunpoint, and their property was seized by the victors. Others were simply killed out of hand.

With the Loyalists’ neighbors turning on them due to patriotic zeal or opportunism, the immediate aftermath of the Patriots’ victory was not a good time to have been one of the colonists who had sided with the British. The hostility of the victors, and fears of even worse to come once the British finally withdraw, convinced many Loyalists that the new United States was not the place of them. So as the British withdrew, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Loyalists upped stakes and withdrew with them, most of them resettling in Canada or British colonies in the Caribbean.

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
‘General George Washington Resigning His Commission’, by John Trumbull, 1824. Wikimedia

George Washington Laid Down His Command of the Continental Army

When the American Revolutionary War broke out, George Washington was appointed to command the Continental Army, and he served as its commander in chief throughout the conflict. He was never a brilliant battlefield commander, but he was a brilliant leader who took disorganized militia mobs, and forged them into a disciplined standing national army. Despite hardships, shortages, political intrigues, backstabbing, and outright treason from some politicians in Congress and some of his own officers in the field, he kept the Continental Army as a going concern until victory was won.

Washington had the satisfaction of leading that army in delivering the final blow, and with French help, he trapped and besieged the British in Yorktown in 1781. The ensuing surrender of Lord Cornwallis brought major fighting in North America to an end. However, although major combat had ended, the war was still on, and the British still had about 26,000 troops occupying New York, Savannah, and Charleston, plus a powerful fleet. In the meantime, the allied French army and navy had left, so the Americans were on their own.

The war would not come to a definitive end until the Paris Peace treaty of 1783 was finally accepted by Congress, and during that period, Washington remained in command of the army. He had no shortage of anxieties and worries to keep him up at nights, not least them of a threatened mutiny by his officers, who proposed to march against Congress for its failure to pay their wages. Washington managed to overcome those difficulties, and keep the Continental Army from overthrowing the civilian government. That might have been his greatest service to America, by saving it from the precedent of soldiers seizing power. That kept the new country from starting along along the path of banana republics.

Britain recognized American independence in the Paris Peace Treaty, which was signed in September of 1783. George Washington then demobilized and disbanded his army, and on December 4th, 1783, after leading the Continental Army for eight and a half year, he bade his officers farewell. He then resigned his commission, effective December 23rd, and like a new Cincinnatus, he returned to his Virginia Plantation at Mount Vernon. Upon hearing that Washington had voluntarily given up power, king George III did not believe it at first. When he was finally convinced of the report’s veracity, the British monarch stated that such a selfless act made the American general “the greatest character of the age“.

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
Protesters witnessing a debtor taking down a tax collector near the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts. Fine Art America

Economic Distress Led to Rebellions in the Newly Independent Country

The newly independent country began the process of rebuilding after the successful conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, and prosperity began to gradually return to the war torn states. Nonetheless, the first few years after independence were rocky, and it was touch and go for a while whether the new country could survive its growing pains.

An economic crisis in the 1780s fell hard upon farmers, who found themselves drowning in debt as they tried to recover and rebuild following the devastations and disruptions of the war years. Many farms had ran up debts during the war, while their menfolk and breadwinners were away fighting to free their country. Many of those farmers, such as war veteran Daniel Shays of Massachusetts, were unable to pay their debts because the government had stiffed them by failing to pay their military wages in full.

The economic crisis struck particularly hard at rural and newly settled areas in western and central Massachusetts. Unlike other state legislatures, that of Massachusetts did not attempt to alleviate the economic suffering by pro debtor measures such printing more paper money or forgiving debts. As a result, local sheriffs in rural Massachusetts started foreclosing upon and seizing farms, as well as seizing the farmers themselves and throwing them into debtors’ prisons.

Understandably, that infuriated many, seeing as how they were in debt because they had opted to serve their country, and were then unable to pay off their debts because their country then failed to pay them for their service. Many in the affected communities were veterans of the recently concluded war, and the instinct to protest governmental injustices that had led them to take up arms in 1775 was still sharp. Once again, Americans of the Founding Fathers generation resisted high taxes and an unresponsive government by rising up in armed rebellion. This time against the Massachusetts government in Boston, rather than the British one in London.

After special meetings to decry conditions and coordinate their actions, the protesters coalesced under the leadership of Daniel Shays and turned into armed rebels, organizing themselves into regional regiments run by elected committees. In the fall of 1786, they started to forcibly close the courts in their communities, and to free their neighbors from debtor prisoners. The rebellion grew and spread, until the insurgents’ numbers eventually rose to about four thousand.

In January of 1787, about 1200 rebels, now called Shaysites, attacked the federal arsenal at Springfield in an attempt to seize its weapons and use them to overthrow the government. The attempt failed, and the rebels were forced to retreat, pursued by private militias paid for by merchants and bankers. The pursuers surprised the rebels with an early morning attack on February 4th, 1787, and scattered them, bringing the rebellion to an inglorious end.

While small in scale, and eventually easily suppressed, Shays’ Rebellion had a great impact, both in Massachusetts and on the United States as a whole. Within the state, the Massachusetts legislature hurried to pass new laws easing the debtors’ economic straits. Across the country, nationalists cited the rebellion as illustrating the weakness of the federal government as it then stood under the Articles of Confederation. Similar rebellions on a smaller scale, had also occurred in Maine, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, among other places. Those insurrections were used by nationalists to make a persuasive argument for a stronger national government. That contributed greatly to the movement for a Constitutional Convention, which met in Philadelphia a few months after the collapse of Shays’ Rebellion.

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
‘Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States’, by Howard Chandler Christy, 1939. Pintrest

The United States Were Solidified by a New Constitution

After the Treaty of Paris recognized the independence of the United States, the national government continued to operate under the wartime Articles of Confederation agreed to by the thirteen colonies at the start of the revolution. The Articles had served to help the Patriots muddle through the war, when they were united by their dislike of Britain and the desire for independence. However, they proved inadequate for a stable and viable national government after war’s end.

A major factor behind the new United States’ instability was the national debt. The national government was practically broke, and under the Articles of Confederation, it had no independent means of raising enough money to make itself solvent. It could neither pay the massive war debts owed to European nations or private banks, nor pay the millions in promissory notes given to Americans for supplies and services during the war. That made the United States too fragile to handle an international war, or even internal disturbances such as Shays’ Rebellion.

Concerned nationalists such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, calling themselves “Federalists”, lobbied Congress and convinced it to call the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. There, from May 25th to September 17th of 1787, delegates from the various states met in the old Pennsylvania State House, later renamed Independence Hall because it had also been where Independence was declared in 1776. The conferees ostensibly sought to fix what ailed the government of the Articles of Confederation. In reality, however, prominent delegates such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were determined from the outset to come up with an entirely new system of government, rather than fix the existing one.

George Washington was elected president of the Convention, and in the ensuing months, the delegates hammered out today’s US Constitution, minus its subsequent amendments. They created a compromise document that left none of the delegates entirely happy, but left most of them satisfied that it was the best that could be done in their generation, given the competing interests and constraints within which they operated.

Contentious issues that could not be resolved at the time, such as slavery, were kicked like a can down the road for future generations to deal with. In the meantime, a basic governmental framework was established, featuring an independent judiciary, a powerful executive, and a bicameral legislature collectively more powerful than both. A web of checks and balances was built into the system to keep any single branch from growing too mighty and eclipsing the others.

From the outset, a prerequisite for the new system’s survival was an involved and intelligent citizenry keeping itself well informed of its government’s activities, and keeping a close eye on its elected officials’ actions. At the close of the Convention, Benjamin Franklin was queried by a lady as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberations: “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it“.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Alpha History – Loyalists

Carolana – The American Revolution in South Carolina: The Evacuation of Charleston

Encyclopedia Britannica – Shays’s Rebellion

History of Parliament Online – Lord North

Library of Congress – Primary Documents in American History: Treaty of Paris

New York Times, June 4th, 2006 – Sunday Book Review: Give Us Liberty

New York Times, November 25th, 2008 – Celebrating 225 Years Since the British Left Town

NPR, July 3rd, 2015 – What Happened to British Loyalists After the Revolutionary War?

Ranker – What Happened Directly After the American Revolution Ended

Schama, Simon – Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (2006)

United States House of Representatives, History, Art, & Archives – Historical Highlights: General George Washington Resigned His Commission in Annapolis, Maryland

U.S. History Org – Shays’ Rebellion

Wikipedia – Georgia in the American Revolution

Wikipedia – South Carolina in the American Revolution